Hookah Hypocrisy

I am a hookah hypocrite. As a public health nurse I am the first to rail against cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol use, and hook-up culture. I believe all are public health issues and hurt not only individuals, but communities.

And I am a hypocrite. Because I have been known to give my sixteen year olds hookahs as rites of passage and sit in a comradely fashion among them puffing my way through mango tobacco. When I excitedly told my friend Cathy (who knows me well) that I had found a hookah, the perfect gift for my son’s  sixteenth birthday, the conversation went like this:

She: “You gave him a bong?”

Me: “A What?”

She: “A bong”.

Me: “What’s a bong?”

Turns out, a bong is a hookah but the word is used primarily in relation to marijuana use. No way did I give my son a bong! I would NEVER have given my son a bong. I’m a public health nurse! I gave him a hookah. In my mind, these were two totally different things.  Hookah hypocrisy. But before you cast a stone, let me explain the roots of this hypocritical stance.

Seven years in the Middle East and fragrant warm evenings sitting at Fishawis’s Cafe in the famous Khan-el-Kalili bazaar with a hookah (or


shisha), your choice of flavored tobacco, and mint tea is an unforgettable cultural experience. Those who know our family know the times we have ached to be back in the land of palm trees and shisha, warm hospitality and shawarma, revolutions and passion.  It is those times that have led me down the hypocritical path of shisha endorsement, caught on camera film for all the world to see. It is trying to explain the cultural aspect of this that gets me in trouble with the mother who calls and asks who I think “Introduced the boys to the hookah? It’s just one more thing to worry about…” chagrined I own up and take responsibility for my hypocrisy. The mom goes on to tell me about the article in the NY Times that speaks in journalistic detail of the dangers of hookah smoke. She goes on to tell about the letter to the editor that followed the article from the esteemed president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Although I want to shut her up, I stand duly rebuked.

I want to be able to qualify my actions through a cross-cultural lens, letting those who disapprove know that we don’t smoke shisha more than once or twice yearly. That when we do it’s a bonding event and no more than a few weak puffs are taken. But at the end of the day, I don’t have an excuse for either my endorsement or my behavior.

A deeper analysis helps me recognize that just as I want people to be able to understand my hookah hypocrisy, as both a nurse and human being, I need to be capable of understanding theirs. But today I’m not going there. I’m confessing to the world that I am a hypocrite and remain convinced of the magic of warm evenings and shisha smoke on outside patios.

15 thoughts on “Hookah Hypocrisy

  1. I totally hear you on this one! I am Egyptian and so I really like shisha culture but wouldnt really smoke anything else. Totally know what you mean!


    1. Exactly – would never touch anything else. It’s all the accompanying cultural pleasures, right? By the way – I love the title of your blog.


  2. I’ve struggled with the same hypocrisy for years as well. I chide my husband whenever he picks up a cigarette but will gladly sit alongside him and puff on a double-apple flavored hookah. It’s an experience. The hookah sets the tone for a relaxing evening. Good coffee, friends and conversations are part of such an experience — while I’m well aware of the dangers of smoking hookah on a regular basis, I’m not about to retire it anytime soon, just as I know that so many people out there will never pick up the hookah for a puff.


    1. Thanks for your honesty and sharing the hypocrisy piece. You expressed the rest of the piece in your sentence “Good coffee, friends and conversations are part of such an experience”. It all blends together and so the idea that there is a health hazard takes a back seat. So glad you read!


  3. Great story. No finger pointing here. I completely against smoking pot but lately I am prone to saying anyone over 45 should be allowed to smoke it. Not young people though. My son who has always always and still is strongly against smoking (cigarettes and especially pot) has now taken to smoking a pipe with flavored tobacco. I was at his house not too long ago and his wife told me to look outside at him. I said what is he doing?! thats when she told me he was smoking a pipe. You could have not me over with a feather.


    1. I had to laugh at this comment and your last sentence! If you read more of the comments you’ll see that my own mom had her chin on the floor when she read this post! And agree with you completely on being against pot – particularly with kids…I know that’s what makes my other attitudes so confusing to others. Thanks for reading!


  4. Marilyn, you handle COMPLEXITY beautifully . . . and you know exactly what I mean! (Paul Farmer’s memorable Haiti story) And I fondly remember that conversation—we both learned something new!


      1. Hi Micah,
        I smile every time I recall that conversation with your Mom . . .and I wish I had a photo of my face when she blithely mentioned the hookah gift! But then she went on, as usual, to give me glimpses across cultural boundaries I hadn’t traveled and a new understanding that widens my view. It’s still a very funny memory! BTW, your wedding photos are magnificent. Hugs to you both. Cathy


  5. After I picked my chin up off the floor, I thought, I will never cease to learn new things about my grown children!


  6. An apt set of observations, especially considering the name and mission of your blog. Funny, though, that smoking hookah may bring one family together, but for another, it could be a teen rebelling against his or her parents; unity for the former, disunity for the latter. Both you and the mom that yelled at you are justified in your arguments and responses.


    1. Excellent point and well put. One of the things my colleague and I do in our workshops is show the same picture and the different responses to that picture. For instance, a Persian carpet: to one it’s a rug for decor, to the next it’s a souvenir, and to the third it’s a place of prayer. Exactly the same with the hookah.


Add to the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s